Are you thinking about hiking a long-distance trail this upcoming season? Whether it’s the AT, CDT or PCT, or any other thru-hike, some good, practical advice can benefit you on the trail without adding weight to your pack. Thru-hiking isn’t a fixed ratio of difficulty (i.e. 30% physical & 70% mental). The thru-hiking life is 100% mental and 100% physical as you live in the elements night and day for months at a time. To help your body, mind and spirit get ready for a thru-hike experience of a lifetime, why not exercise your awareness with these extra (and weightless) thru-hiking tips.
Don’t be afraid of going solo
If you prefer the company of others but can’t commit anyone to an extended trip, depending on the thru-hike you’re aiming for, you won’t have to hike alone for long. North-bound hikes on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail have a healthy level of hikers every day. Each respective overseeing administration (ATC & PCTA) have put out numbers suggesting that over 3,000 hikers have attempted northbound treks in the last two seasons. If you find yourself a part of these statistics next season, it’s not difficult to find some like-minded hikers to trek along with.
Plan as much as you can
Use the official websites as a starting point and branch out from there. Use all the resources you can (logs, maps, guidebooks, data books, presentations and friendly beta) to understand key aspects of your hike including resupply points, specialty gear needs, a rough timeline and an estimated budget. This will not only let you savor the flavor of the actual thru-hike more, but it will provide an adequate amount of background knowledge to inevitably adjust the plan when needed.
Life on a thru-hike often involves over 40,000 steps and 12+ hours of hiking a day. Before you hit those kind of distances, do yourself a favor and add more walking into your daily routine. Walk to work, walk to the grocery store and start changing your mind frame as to what is a reasonable walking commute. A seven mile walk to the movie theater too far? You won’t think so once you’ve finished your thru-hike. Bonus points are added if you throw on your pack with no-weight, half-weight or as full load.
Begin a blog, photo collection, or extended project
After weeks or months spent on trail, much of the magic tends to blend together. Documenting your journey in some way will not only help solidify your travels into your mind, but it can become an ongoing ritual that helps you to go that extra mile. Blogs, photo projects, and personal journals are all great options. Other creative outlets to occupy your mind include watercolors, collecting postcards, or extended projects like capturing a picture of yourself every mile of the trail.
Adjust your pack
Your pack straps aren’t the only thing that may need adjustment. Be ready to adjust all your systems. Planning will help you get a good base, but something will inevitably need to change. The first 600 miles of desert on the PCT requires vastly different gear than the High Sierra crossing that follows. You might realize that your hammock isn’t warm enough in the early Tennessee season. Perhaps you’d be more comfortable with an ice-axe in the San Juan’s of the CDT. Whatever it is, rigidity is only needed in your hiking poles, and even those have a little flexibility.
Break it down into sections
Somewhere along the way on a thru-hike, you’ll inevitably start doing the mental math of your surroundings. How far to the next hut, how many miles until the next town, and how many days it will take to hit the terminus. While these Rain-Man calculations are bound to happen, you have the choice of what equations to focus on. Breaking the trail down into manageable sections can help establish a good frame of mind, whether that’s the official sections, 100-mile chunks or even just one day at a time. Achieving these manageable goals repeatedly can really add up to a successful trip.
Much like the weather, the bad moments will also pass
Plenty of factors can dampen your mood on trail, including inclement weather. Insect swarms, sore-knees, twisted-ankles, cold nights, the audible stomach groan when anyone mentions bacon, the list goes on for temporary side-aches and reasons to complain. Much like the inclement weather though, the storm clouds will pass, and maybe a trail angel will provide you with some breakfast. At times, the key to pressing on will be in making key decisions when you can see the sun somewhere overhead.
How Will You Look Back on the Experience?
Something to think about during all big decisions as well as during those solitary hours of trail, glancing far into the future, ask yourself right now, how do you want to look back on your experience thru-hiking? Is it a constant, hard-fought crunch to the end regardless of the conditions? Or are you seeking the Zen-like satisfaction of moving at your own pace? Go ahead, write your answer down and pack it with you. Understanding your expectations will help you find exactly what you are looking for on your thru-hike.
Hike Your Own Hike
The Golden Rule of thru-hiking: hike your own hike. Whether you are accomplishing a single section at a snail’s pace or aiming to set speed records, the beauty of public-accessed lands is that you can choose your own adventure. The other Golden Rule still applies, but if you want to wear a tutu, wear a tutu. If you want to be that hiker who won’t stop getting Taylor Swift songs stuck in people’s head, go for it. At the end of the day, at the end of the trail, and a defining part of every thru-hiking experience – you get to be you while you’re out there.